Yesterday I went to the Game Fair to chat to Andrew Gilruth of the GWCT in front of a fairly full audience in the Carter Jonas marquee. I’ve been going to the Game Fair for years, my first was over 30 years ago and I’ve never turned down an invitation to attend. A couple of years ago both Chris Packham and I were invited and then uninvited a couple of days before the event.
When the Game Fair can bring itself to host a debate between Chris Packham and Ian Botham then they will have a crowd-pulling event, and they’ll need a bigger tent, but yesterday, Andrew and I had a civilised chat about Hen Harriers, carbon sequestration and what we’d like the uplands to look like. Everyone was very polite to me, some cooly so, but some seemed genuinely pleased to see me. The Game Fair is a smaller event than it used to be, and it has become rather more a gathering of the shooting industry and its participants than it used to be. Whereas in the past, wildlife NGOs used to attend because there were crowds of people at the Game Fair just for a day out, now those numbers are much reduced and unless you want to buy an expensive painting, an expensive day’s shooting or a very expensive bacon roll then the Game Fair won’t grab your attention for very long, I’d say.
What did we say to each other? All the usual things! But it was good to have the opportunity to interact, one to one, for a period of about 45 minutes or so. Andrew wanted to know what I saw as the future for the uplands if not driven grouse shooting and I told him, several times; a cessation of rampant illegal persecution of birds of prey and strong regulation of burning will make the current model of intensive grouse shooting unviable but luckily society will be willing to pay for those same grouse moors to provide ecosystem services such as carbon storage, flood alleviation and better water quality – that’s the future.
Andrew was good enough to say that he and GWCT accept that the Murgatroyd et al. paper (and Fielding et al,. 2011, Etheridge et al. 1997, Natural England 2009) and all those other studies of Peregrine, Golden Eagles etc show that there is a lot of wildlife crime on grouse moors but there were several heads in the audience that were shaking each time I mentioned that unpalatable fact. Others looked stony face. But Amanda Anderson always has a smile on her face. It’s difficult to know what the shooting commnity as a whole really think about killing raptors. I’m sure there are some who genuinely don’t think it happens very much but they are ignoring the overwhelming evidence that it does. Others know that it does, but cannot possibly admit that unsavoury truth. I did mention Ian Coghill’s recent book – see here.
The best that Andrew could do was to say that Hen Harrier numbers had gone up a little over the last five years and that brood meddling was having a positive impact. It’s true that Hen Harrier numbers have increased from practically nothing to around 20-30 pairs, and that brood meddling has been part of that, but this is being used as an excuse not to tackle the massive extent of persecution of all birds of prey across the uplands. Everyone looks a little queasy when one asks how broodmeddling of Hen Harriers helps Golden Eagles, Peregrines, Goshawks and Red Kites on grouse moors.
But we always come back to the fact that a hobby which is underpinned by crime is not going to survive the spotlight of public opinion and if it doesn’t change then it will cease to exist. The problem facing intensive grouse shooting is that it really does depend, very much, on killing loads of predators, some legally and others illegally. The economic model for driven grouse shooting is one which depends on raptors being reduced to very low numbers, and if you aren’t doing that on your own grouse moor then you must thank all the other grouse moors that are working so hard at it that you are benefitting from their efforts. And of course you can’t market a hobby and admit that it depends on crime, so you have to go through amazing contortions to minimise the impact on the reputation of that hobby. It’s an impossible task quite honestly, as time is telling, and as time will tell.
I never feel as though I am in a group of people much exercised by climate change when I talk to grouse shooters. But even some of them are seeing the way the world is going. With muirburn set to be licensed in Scotland and partially restricted in England another plank of driven grouse shooting is rotting away. Even if you kill all the predators, if you can’t create a wholly unnatural habitat through rotational burning then Red Grouse numbers prior to the shooting season will drop. Added to the spread of grouse diseases it’s going to be more and more difficult to deliver high densities of Red Grouse for shooting. This year, I hear, will be the fourth year in a row when Red Grouse shooting in many parts of England will be low. Many moors are looking to a different future.
And that is where the embracing of the provision of ecosystem services – carbon storage, flood alleviation and water quality for starters – has come along at just the right time for the grouse moor owners. There is a new economic and legal land use for the uplands and you’ll be able to do some walked up grouse shooting for old times sake too.
Andrew was kind enough to give me a very pleasant lunch and we talked about general licences, lead and gamebird releases as well as having a gossip. I had a couple of conversations with BASC staff which were worth having and one that wasn’t, and a gamekeeper on the BASC stand told me that the RSPB make up their bird figures.
I’d like to thank Charlie Jacoby of Fieldsports TV for inviting me to the Game Fair, for setting up the chat with Andrew Gilruth and for letting us get on with it. I’d also like to thank him for providing me with a minder called Nobby just in case anyone got a little nasty but they needn’t have worried. Nobby was good company though.